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'Pretty much indistinguishable': Doctors urge people feeling sick to get COVID-19 test due to similar symptoms to flu

Dr. James Jarvis of Northern Light Health said it is critical for people to get a COVID-19 test to avoid spreading the virus.

BANGOR, Maine — Doctors in Maine are urging people to take precautions as flu season begins amid a surge in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Early October is when influenza activity starts to increase, according to the U.S. CDC. Many symptoms of the flu and COVID-19 are similar:

  • Fever or feeling feverish/having chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue (tiredness)
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle pain or body aches
  • Headache
  • Vomiting and diarrhea
  • Change in or loss of taste or smell, although this is more frequent with COVID-19.

"It is often difficult for us to distinguish between the two because they share a lot of similar features," Dr. James Jarvis of Northern Light Health said. 

Jarvis said people who feel those symptoms, especially a fever, should get a COVID-19 test as a precaution.

"We do need to know the difference about whether this is influenza or COVID-19. The treatments for the two are different, so you need to have that in mind," Jarvis said. "It makes a difference for the people in the household. COVID-19 is far more infectious than influenza is, and we want to make sure that if someone is positive for COVID we're protecting everybody and not just the individual who has the positive test."

He said testing is critical because COVID-19 affects far more organ systems after a person gets sick with that virus.

Those tests also help hospital staff decide where to quarantine a person to prevent spread to other patients or staff.

He also pleads with people to get a flu shot to avoid going to the hospital in the first place.

"That just adds to the burden that our hospital systems are having right now in managing not just COVID-19 patients, but all the other things that need to be in an acute care facility," Jarvis said. "That's just one more hit to the resources that are so precious right now."

Last year, a state of emergency led to widespread mask-wearing and social distancing, resulting in flu cases that were few and far between.

Now, those requirements are gone, replaced by suggestions that doctors hope people will follow.

"All the precautions we were doing to protect ourselves against COVID-19 worked to prevent spread of influenza as well," Jarvis said. "That's our fear. That typically happens with influenza. We have a mild flu season and then everyone lets their guard down and the following year we have a bad one."

If a person has COVID-19, it could take them longer to experience symptoms than if they had flu.

Typically, a person experiences flu symptoms anywhere from one to four days after infection.

Typically, a person experiences COVID-19 symptoms about five days after being infected, but symptoms can appear two to 14 days after infection.

Watch the full interview with Dr. Jarvis below: